On my recent work trip to London, one thing that surprised me was how familiar the names of the various places seemed. Somehow there was an odd little thrill of recognition when hearing that I would be stopping at King’s Cross station, or seeing the Serpentine on a map, or walking along Baker Street. It only occurred to me later on that London has actually featured quite heavily in a lot of my favourite books and TV shows, and that little thrill was be remembering the places and the characters featured there.
I have a real urge to go read something right now.
Here are three of my all time favourite stories and their various locations in London. There are of course many, many stories set in London, but these are my favourite ones. Which are yours?
I was a fan of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s book series first, having read all the short and long stories several times after picking up a collection of his stories at a cheap used book sale quite randomly. Turns out that kickstarted my love for detective short stories – I moved on to Agatha Christie and other similar detective story collections later on, but Sherlock has always been my favourite.
My love for Sherlock was rekindled when the steampunk-ish movies came out with Robert Downey Junior and Jude Law, and even more with the BBC Sherlock series featuring Benedict Cumberbatch and Martin Freeman playing the titular Sherlock Holmes and John Watson in modern day London.
Therefore, even though I had technically visited 221B Baker Street before (way back in 2005, wow time flies!), I had to pay my pilgrimage to this famous address once more, and actually go inside the museum this time – the last time I just stood outside for my picture:
You first need to enter the Museum/gift shop side and buy your ticket (which is really just a brochure with some write ups of the dioramas) to enter for 10 pounds (the website says 6 pounds which I think is outdated). Then after that, you head back outside and past the ‘constable’ at the door of 221B, where you climb the narrow stairs and check out 3 levels of rooms which feature various Sherlock memorabilia, recreations of Victorian ages and some of the famous Sherlock story characters.
Frankly, I didn’t learn that much more history or new factoids; I don’t think I missed out much by not entering the museum the first time I was here. Perhaps I’d recommend this only for those who are big enough fans to instantly recognize some of the dioramas or just want to bask in the fact that they are in 221B. The gift shop is enough for most people who want a souvenir of the place or to get a sense of what Sherlock is about – I got myself a Baker Street road sign and the BBC Sherlock Casebook (which is cheaper online! They were selling it at 15 pounds there argh)
The Sherlock Holmes Museum
221B Baker Street (duh) off Marylebone Street and close to Madame Tussauds Wax Museum. Take the underground and get off at the Baker Street station. Take the Baker Street exit, and across the road on your right you’ll see the Museum.
(I had some free time one afternoon, and walked about 6km from Southwark to Baker Street. Yes my legs and back were dying at some point)
Open 9.30am – 6pm everyday except Christmas.
Funnily, the BBC show exterior was actually filmed at 187 North Gower Street a couple of streets away. Here’s a comprehensive list if you want to check out the various locations of the BBC series.
And who doesn’t know the Boy who Lived and the magical train station from which all his adventures began (almost) every year? I picked up the Prisoner of Azkaban first – my dad had bought the first four books for us and I honestly had only heard bits and pieces about it back then. Turns out I loved it so much I ended up speeding through the other three books to get caught up, and then religiously awaited the day of release for the subsequent books. I would make my pre-orders, go and get my book and then spend the next few hours just speed reading my way through to the end of the book to get the plot, and then go back again later on at a more leisurely pace to pick up details.
So when I heard that they actually had ‘built’ Platform 9 and 3/4 at London’s King’s Cross Station, I thought it would be fun to go check it out, if I had the time. Well my work week in London was pretty packed and it seemed like I wasn’t going to be able to do so, but finally on my last day as I was returning on the Northern Line from Old Street and debating on whether to make a very quick trip to Portobello Market with a very limited amount of time, I saw that King’s Cross station was next, and that’s when I knew that the last thing I would do on this trip was go check out Platform 9 and 3/4 instead of shopping at Portobello Market.
King’s Cross station is a very grand train station – you have to walk a fair bit from the Underground towards the train Platforms 9 and 10, but there is no missing the queue that forms at this little hot spot. I thought it was gonna be a little more adhoc – people taking turns to take photos at a tourist photo spot, but it turns out there are actual employees stationed there to manage the snaking queue, help take an official photograph of everyone, and a convenient gift shop just next door where you can buy souvenirs or your official photograph (it costs 9.50 pounds and comes with a frame, whereas you can take as many pictures for free on your own, which… yeah not worth it for me)
Be prepared to wait a little, depending on how efficient the staff are being and how camwhorey the people in front of you are. I waited half an hour in line to get my shot, and thankfully someone nice in front of me took a decent shot for me. I wandered through the shop to look at merchandise but didn’t buy anything else in the end.
221B Baker Street (duh) off Marylebone Street and close to Madame Tussauds Wax Museum. Take the underground and get off at the King’s Cross and St Pancras station. Follow the signage towards King’s Cross train station, and head towards Platform 9, 10, 11. The shop is located outside the fare gates so you don’t have to buy a train ticket
The shop is open 8am – 10pm everyday except Sundays when it’s 9am – 9pm. I don’t think there’s any opening time if you just want to take your picture with the cart, but they probably wouldn’t have people working if you came here late! King’s Cross Station itself is open from 5am to around 1.30am.
If you’re a big Harry Potter fan, one thing you can do in London is go for the Warner Brothers Studio Tour which shows you the sets that Harry Potter was filmed on, though that’s a bit of a journey outside main London city itself in Watford and you have to buy your tickets online first. Another more convenient option is the Muggle Walking Tours showing filming locations around main London.
Compared to the other two stories, Neverwhere by Neil Gaiman is probably relatively unknown. I’m a huge Neil Gaiman fan, having read Sandman and all of his novels, and Neverwhere was always my favourite of his books, moreso than American Gods which most people seem to prefer. Neverwhere actually started out as a TV series for BBC 2 in 1996, which I watched only in more recent years, and like Dr Who, it’s got that kinda low-budget ‘BBC’ look to it (I really have no words to describe it, but I know a BBC show when I watch one somehow). Since then, the story has also been recreated as a BBC 4 radio drama (with Benedict Cumberbatch from above voicing one of the characters!) and a graphic novel (the visuals did not match my thoughts at all).
What’s unique about it is that the characters in Neverwhere mostly come from London Below, a fantastical dark mirror of London Above (i.e. our London as we know it), and he uses many places and place names in London to create them. There is an actual Earl in Earl’s Court, and there are lots of rather shady monks in Blackfriars, and an actual Angel in Islington.
So which places did I recognize? The HMS Belfast near Tower Bridge is an old warshop and also one of the key locations named in the story as a ‘floating market’ that the characters visit. We visited the British Museum which apparently has a disused Underground station in its basement that’s not open to public, but the characters travelled to in their world of London Below, and is the place where the characters find a mysterious doorway. Serpentine is the lake in the park where I visited the Serpentine Galleries and the name of a woman character, while Hammersmith which is one of the names of the Underground line and that of a character who is a blacksmith (with a hammer, of course).
There is a very excellent guide and Google Map of various names and locations described in the book here at Walked-in London if you want to see where the character’s names came from, and if you like an intellectual read, try this paper here.
Which of your favourite stories is set in London? Did you go looking for specific locations when you were in London?